Sure, Google Maps makes it easy to find the shortest distance from A to B. But sometimes it’s not the fastest route you’re after, but the nicest one. Luckily, speed and ruthless efficiency aren’t the only things Google Maps is good for.
Enable the right settings, and Google Maps for Android and iOS can help plot the perfect meandering route to your destination, find restaurants with local flair, keep track of what you saw, scout out the most charming B&Bs, and keep you oriented while you’re hiking in the signal-free countryside.
Take the scenic route
If you want Google Maps to find the roads less taken for your next weekend getaway, try this.
First, do a standard Google Maps location search—tap the blue navigation button near the bottom of the screen, and make sure the “from” and “to” fields are filled out correctly. Tap the three-dot menu button in the top corner of the screen, then tap Route options. Among the choices: avoid highways, avoid tolls, and avoid ferries. You can enable one, two, or all three settings if you wish.
Once that’s done, Google Maps will reroute you to a longer but (hopefully) more scenic way to wherever you’re going. Before hitting the road, though, take a close look at the route to make sure Google Maps isn’t sending you anywhere too remote, like a one-lane dirt road.
Download area maps to your phone
Whether you’re taking the scenic route to your destination or a hike in the hills outside of town, there’s a good chance your holiday excursion could take you well outside your carrier’s LTE coverage area. If you want to keep Google Maps up and running even when your cellular connection gets iffy, try downloading local map data to your phone for offline use.
The first step: Search Google Maps for the place you’re going (such as, say, “New Paltz NY,” then tap the location label at the bottom of the screen. Next, tap the Download button (it should be near the middle of the screen, next to the Save and Share buttons), then drag the selection square to cover the area you want to download—and of course, the bigger the area, the more storage you’ll need on your Android or iOS device.
Once you’ve downloaded a map, you’ll be able to navigate and search the area even when you’re out of cell phone range, although details on local haunts will be limited until you go back online.
Take a tour in and around your hotel
Having trouble picking the perfect B&B? If you feel yourself starting to slide down the TripAdvisor rabbit hole, try narrowing down your choices with a little help from Street View.
Tap the name of a hotel or bed and breakfast on Google Maps, then see if there any Street View tours available; just look for the 360-degree arrow in the corner of a thumbnail. If you’re lucky, the proprietor or even a visitor will have created a virtual tour of their hotel or B&B using Street View; just swipe and tap to take a look around.
Even if there aren’t any Street View tours of the place you’re considering, you can at least take a stroll around the neighborhood. Find the hotel or bed and breakfast on Google Maps, tap and hold a spot on a nearby street, then swipe and tap to get the lay of the land.
Find out where the locals eat
If you don’t want to get caught in a tourist trap come dinnertime, you can use Google Maps to pinpoint restaurants and cafés with some real local flavor.
Open Google Maps, zoom in on an area, tap the main menu button in the top-left corner of the screen, then tap Explore to start browsing nearby restaurants, cafés, and watering holes.
The tabs along the top let you specify a meal (breakfast, lunch, dinner, and so on), and if you scroll through the various categories, you’ll find a “Where the locals eat” option. See a restaurant you like? Tap Read more for photos, menus, hours, and a chart that shows the place’s busiest hours.
Keep a diary of where you’ve been [Android only]
Don’t want memories of your weekend jaunt to slip away? Google Maps has a nifty feature that’ll help you remember where you went and what you saw, but you’ll have to enable an eyebrow-raising privacy setting first.
Location History is a setting that lets Google track and save the location of your various Google-connected devices, including your Android phone. Google says it only uses your location to help boost its local recommendations, and that you’re the only one who can view your location history. (To access the Location History setting on an Android Nougat device, tap Settings > Location > Google Location History.)
Now, if the Location History feature still sounds creepy, go ahead and leave it off. But if you trust Google with your location data, you can try a Location History-aided feature called Your Timeline, which displays both a timeline (natch) and a map showing everywhere you went on a given day.
To open Your Timeline, tap the Google Maps main menu button in the top-left corner of the screen, then tap Your Timeline. Tap a date in the Your Timeline calendar to see your day’s journey plotted on the map, plus a timeline of where you went (you can edit a location if Google Maps gets it wrong), how you got there (Google Maps does a good job guessing whether you walked, drove, took public transit, or flew), and when you arrived and left. You’ll even see any photos you took along the way.
Ben has been writing about technology and consumer electronics for more than 20 years. A PCWorld contributor since 2014, Ben joined TechHive in 2019, where he covers smart speakers, soundbars, and other smart and home-theater devices. You can follow Ben on Twitter.